Turning the Page

Episode 13 ‘We need to talk’ about Cortisol

October 24, 2019

Criticism, shouting, or being ‘put down’ releases the hormone Cortisol into our blood system. It causes us discomfort. When we know this, we can take greater responsibility for our responses.

Four little words will send a shot of terror into a man’s soul.

‘We need to talk.’

On a local sports radio station, one of the presenters has a little audio cutaway with a deeply serious woman saying those words.

Every man has an instant flash of warning lights and hears alarm bells.

The brain brings us sentences such as

  • What have I done wrong?
  • How have I failed?
  • How am I going to get out of this?
  • Not again?
  • What is it now?

It doesn’t have to be a woman either. It could be anyone: an employer, a coach, a friend.

What words trigger you?


What happens is that these four little words, and variances of them, touch down on the shame/ failure button.

It’s an attack on our wellbeing, or at least that is the way the body hears it. We are in danger of something – real or perceived, and our body is ready to respond to the threat.


When shouting is involved in communication, it’s like a physical attack.

It may be words, but they can feel like a punch, a prod, a slap. It’s a power attack. ‘My voice is louder, I’m bigger, and I’m stronger.’

Again it’s an attack on our wellbeing, or at least that is the way the body hears it. We are in danger of something – real or perceived, and our body is ready to respond to the threat.


At the top of our kidneys, we have some little glands called the adrenal glands.

One of the hormones created here is Cortisol.

In my favorite book about men, women, and their differences, Patricia Love and Steven Stosny write this.

Cortisol is a hormone secreted during certain negative emotions.

Its job is to get your attention by making you uncomfortable so that your discomfort drives you to do something to make the situation better.

The pain a woman feels when her man shouts at her is caused by the sudden release of cortisol.

A man feels this same discomfort when he is confronted with her unhappiness or criticism.
Patricia Love and Steven Stosny. Why Women Talk and Men Walk: How to Improve Your Relationship Without Discussing It

The drive

I’ve always heard about the importance of cortisol in the most threatening of situations such as when you might be under attack by a burglar, or if your house is on fire.

But what about your typical everyday life situations and relationships.  A little criticism here and there, a slightly raised voice. Non-verbal communication threats. A disturbing email lands in your inbox.

You feel threatened, and there is a release of cortisol. You respond in the most natural way to you.

Our response

Most likely, we will choose one of three responses.

  1. Fight – give back as much as we have received and then some. We may lash out criticism or shouting.
  2. Flee – we will run from the problem. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
  3. Freeze – we shut down.

This is our body responding to a threat.

What’s more, if we have had repeated threats over and over again, we get to know what is safe and what is not.

We learn that when we are in these situations, then there is a high chance of feeling uncomfortable (the adrenal glands doing their job).

It’s a cortisol hangover that we are trying to avoid.

He may look like he is avoiding her, but he is essentially trying to avoid a cortisol hangover for the next several hours. Patricia Love and Steven Stosny

Our responsibility

We are ‘wonderfully complex’ as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 139:14.

Hormones are flowing here and there. Neurons are sparking off, and all are happening without any conscious thought from us.

We have a responsibility, though. Our response to others is our responsibility.

When we notice times when we want to criticize, shout, avoid, or seemingly freeze up, we need to take responsibility for ourselves and not blame the other.

‘You make me so mad’ needs to be seen as ‘I get mad when you do this.’ No one can make you mad without your permission.

Believe it or not, no-one can actually make you angry.
You choose your own reaction so quickly it’s hard to believe you did it by yourself. D. Riddell

We need to ask ourselves some questions.

  • Why are we responding in this way?
  • Are there ways that I can respond that are healthier?
  • Is my anger/frustration triggering others to fight, flee, or freeze? Sure their response is their responsibility, but am I communicating in a way that is good and whole?

Then we need to look for ways to respond that are healthier, more gracious, and bring out the best.

Paul wrote this centuries ago, but it still applies today.

Be gracious in your speech.
The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation,
not put them down, not cut them out. Colossians 4:6

Quotes to consider

  • With heavy doses of cortisol, shame hurts like hell and drains off all available energy—all you want to do is crawl into a hole. Its message is that something is producing rejection or failure—stop it and cover it up! Patricia Love and Steven Stosny
  • Monitor your thinking and deliberately dwell on the virtues of your difficult friend, or negative feelings will surely follow. D. Riddell
  • Accepting responsibility for your own responses and choices is the first step to a healed life. (Christians call this “re-pentance.”) D. Riddell
  • Instead of spending our lives running towards our dreams, we are often running away from a fear of failure or a fear of criticism. Eric Wright

Questions to answer

  1. How do you respond to various stressful situations? Fight, flee, or freeze?
  2.  Paul tells us to ‘bring out the best in others in a conversation.’ How do we do this?
  3. Do others make you angry, sad, frustrated?

Further reading




Barry Pearman

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